If archers had a horror movie produced specifically for them, it would be called Target Panic (the tagline would read, “there is no cure…”). The film wouldn’t require a bunch of CGI or gruesome murder scenes; it would just be a group of bowhunters in a town where an invisible force manifests without warning and makes everyone’s shooting fall apart. Where did it come from? No one knows. How do we beat it? Well, that’s what the protagonist (might I suggest Mark Wahlberg) will have to figure out.
As far as movies go, that actually sounds fairly boring. However, if you’ve ever had target panic touch your life, you know just how frightening it can feel to suddenly have less and less control over your archery abilities. I’ve been combatting some level of target panic for close to a year now, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve tried every solution the internet has to offer. Through that journey, I’ve had varying degrees of success — some that worked for a short time and others that are still paying dividends now — so let me take you through five cures you might try if you think target panic is sinking its claws into you. Hopefully, some combination of these will get you past it. We’ll start with the quickest and least invasive and build to the major archery overhaul that might be necessary if your target panic has become exceptionally ingrained.
At its core, target panic is a mental block brought on by aiming. The more you try to get that pin to stay on target, the more your brain tries to override your desired shot sequence and get that bow to go off. So, the first thing to try would be to move in (I suggest 20 yards or less) and use a big target. If you’re shooting a standard block with different dot patterns all over it, switch to the side with the biggest single target. At 20 yards, your pin can float all over a 6” dot without leaving. Hopefully, this lets your brain calm down a bit, knowing you aren’t going to miss, and you can focus on executing a perfect release. I’m not saying you have to limit your practice to 20 yards forever, but getting away from the 100 yard Hail Marys for a while should help reinforce your fundamentals and allow you to work your way back out to distance over time.
I know I just suggested using the big dot to clear things up, but sometimes our mental bad habits (like punching the trigger or anticipating the shot) get baked in through constant repetition of the exact same process. If you spend every practice session shooting at the same distances from the same position at the same little dots on the same foam cube, all those little details can reinforce the bad habits you’re trying to break. Sometimes, something simple like shooting at a different target (i.e. a 3D buck as opposed to dots or competition rings) can disrupt the brain’s process enough to snap you back into the proper shot execution.
This may sound weird, but I was amazed at the results when I first tried it. Also, to give credit where credit is due, I learned this technique from a friend who heard it from John Dudley. Essentially, you come to full draw and line up your sight picture, i.e., go through all the steps up until the point where you would release the arrow. Then, with your finger/thumb on the release, you say a phrase of your choosing to yourself (probably not out loud so that your buddies will still want to shoot with you). Dudley says, “I shoot 10s because 10s make me happy,” but you can choose literally any phrase that’s at least half a dozen words long. The point is not to create an incantation to make the arrow go where you want it, but to give your brain something else to focus on at the tail-end of executing the shot. Now, you don’t want to create a new “punch-point” in your sequence, so try to gradually apply pressure throughout your phrase so that, theoretically, the shot will break somewhere during the last couple of words. If you create a new bad habit where you say your phrase and punch the trigger in sequence, you’ll be right back where you started.
I know this sounds like a bizarre trick, but it gave me incredible short-term results. My friend told me about this at the archery range when we were a few targets into a walking course, and I was ridiculously hit-or-miss as my target panic had gotten fairly bad at this point. I chose a phrase and tried it on the next target and hit exactly where I wanted. Then it worked on the next one…and the next one. I honestly shot lights out to 100 yards the rest of that morning and thought I was instantly cured. Sadly, my panic proved more powerful, and I began punching uncontrollably at the beginning of the phrase as time went on. But if you have a more mild case, this little trick might be just enough to snap you out of it.
Okay, if the last three suggestions haven’t worked, you’re probably facing a deeply ingrained case of target panic, and it’s going to take more drastic measures (which will take longer). One of the most common and cost-effective strategies is to spend some time blind bailing. Since aiming is the problem for your brain, this takes that step out of the equation. You literally remove the sight from your bow and stand just a couple yards from your target. Settle into your anchor point — you can even close your eyes if you’d like to — and focus on nothing besides executing a crisp surprise release of the arrow. There’s nothing to aim at, and you physically can’t miss, so you can theoretically reprogram your muscle memory and get that release process dialed-in. Most instructors I’ve found recommend doing this as your only archery practice for at least a couple weeks, then to add the sight back on and very slowly work your way back to distance over the course of several weeks.
A similar effect can be accomplished with a shot trainer, though it’s not entirely the same. Personally, I prefer using the trainer as a supplement that you can keep by your desk, in your truck or somewhere where you can use it several times throughout the day and then also put in your blind-bailing work with a real bow. In tough cases, the mere act of coming to full draw can begin to induce actual anxiety, which will obviously reinforce and potentially exacerbate your target panic. Because of that, trying to avoid blind-bailing by substituting solely with a shot trainer will probably not yield the full benefits you’re hoping for.
This is sometimes the first thing a person with target panic will turn to; however, for many others, it’s a last desperate attempt before quitting archery altogether. This is certainly the most invasive solution and will take quite a bit of time to do correctly, but it is also one of the most surefire cures to target panic when done properly. There isn’t an inherent accuracy difference from one style of release to another. What makes switching an effective solution is that it forces you to rebuild your shot process from scratch. Switching to a new style will not work if you don’t approach the new release as if you’re a brand-new archer needing to learn everything about how to use it from the ground up.
The ultimate cure for target panic is building a shot process that consistently delivers a surprise shot, which can be achieved with an index, thumb or hinge release. While you could theoretically work towards that surprise shot with your existing style, often, the bad habits that led to your panic in the first place are just too ingrained to overcome. Switching your entire method allows you to build that surprise shot from the beginning. So, if you’ve been punching an index-style release and buy a thumb button to combat it (a pretty common move), it won’t solve anything if you just start punching that thumb button the same way you did the index trigger. Learn the proper way to use whichever new release you choose to achieve a surprise release and slowly and patiently build that new muscle memory. It will take some time, and you’ll almost inevitably feel like your shooting gets a little worse in the learning process. As frustrating as that might be, it will come back much quicker than the first time you learned to shoot a bow, and you should actually end up shooting better than you ever have once target panic is officially behind you.
Shop for archery releases here
I have certainly been there and felt the very real panic that comes from feeling like you’re completely out of control behind your bow. I spent the better part of a year working through all these solutions and there were ups and downs along the way. If you feel like your target panic is absolutely the worst it could possibly be, know that it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with enough work and the right strategies. Accept that it can take some time, things may get worse before they get better, but better bowhunting days are certainly on the horizon if you’re willing to put in the work. Shoot straight and don’t panic.
Check out these other target panic articles: